Stand by your man – By Joceline Tan

The Star Online | 11-July-2009 – Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has worked non-stop since being sworn in as Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s No 2 but he has also learned to smile more and even to laugh at himself.

TAN SRI Muhyiddin Yassin has had a mad, mad week packed with workdays that ended well after midnight. The Deputy Prime Minister had been in Manek Urai everyday this week, shuttling between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Baru.

On top of that he had been busy preparing for the much awaited announcement on the Mathematics and Science issue in his capacity as Education Minister.

Thursday, the day after he had made the policy announcement, was his first available day to accommodate interview requests from the media. And it looked like another long day because a string of media people were waiting in different holding rooms to interview him.

It was three days to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s first 100 days in office but when it became apparent that the Prime Minister was not giving any interviews, everyone began rushing for the No 2.

Muhyiddin was in an obliging mood. He has been a loyal and competent No 2 and he was eager to talk about the policies and measures that “the boss” had put in place so far.

As he settled down for the interview, he scanned through the brief his special officer Marzuki Mohamad handed over.

It was the feedback on his announcement to reinstate Bahasa Malaysia for teaching Mathematics and Science and he seemed anxious to know what Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had to say.

The issue had been blowing like a restless wind for more than a year and it is evident from the timing of the decision that the Prime Minister wished to settle it in his first 100 days.

“We have all been busy but the PM has more things on his plate than others because he is holding a huge responsibility. He wants to deliver on the promises we made in the elections,” said Muhyiddin.

Najib’s Cabinet did not impress everyone, but sometimes the leadership of a team can make a difference to the team and Najib has shown that he is clear about what needs to be done and how to go about it and he has won respect from his team on that.

Najib, as his No 2 pointed out, has made the economy his No 1 priority.

“The PM understands that people will only be contented and hopeful about the future if the economy is stable and expands, if there are jobs for everyone, and investment and business opportunities.

“He has made some very bold decisions on the economy because he believes he is doing the right thing for the nation. He has shown political will and direction on the very important area of the economy in his first three months.

“Some people said he came in at the wrong time but I say that for the rakyat, he came in at the right time. The country need leaders who can manage crises and issues. He is the right man for the job,” said Muhyiddin.

The Cabinet retreat last weekend was also important for the team to bond and thrash out ideas and get a better sense of focus about charting the future course of action.

Najib had made it quite obvious not long after the Umno leadership transition was finalised that his preferred choice for No 2 was Muhyiddin. He had watched how the Johor politician worked and carried himself thought the years and he knew the stuff that Muhyiddin was made of.

Muhyiddin was too modest to say how he thought he had done so far as Najib’s No 2. But he admitted that some of his friends had teased him that he seemed to be in agreement with Najib all the time. They find it too good to be true.

“I have promised to be a good No 2. I don’t try to be, as the Malays say, memandai-mandai, to act smart or do as I like. The thing is that the PM has initiated what most of us want to be done, and I support that,” he said.

Then on a lighter note, he said: “He is a better singer than I am but I will be the backup singer. That way the music sounds better and the song will be Stand by Me.”

When he was in Alor Star recently, he decided to emulate the walkabout that Najib had done. He made an impromptu visit to the famous shopping area, Pekan Rabu, walking through and chatting with the stall-holders and shoppers.

When his hosts wanted to take him for lunch at the nearby Holiday Villa, he declined and settled down at one of the Malay stalls in the complex where he had some steaming hot Kedah cooking plus a good chat with the people there about issues in the area.

“It’s a good thing what Najib started. I hear that one of places he stopped at for a drink in Brickfields is now called ‘Najib’s Corner’ and people talked about it for days. That’s also what people want, for a our leaders to be down-to-earth and to understand what they go through.

“I’ve told my officers that I would like to do more of that if possible. It’s a fuss-free way of connecting with the people.”

He is planning to give more attention to his Education Ministry duties after this and plans to make surprise visit to schools in the months ahead.

“So don’t be surprised to find me dropping into your school and sitting at the back of the class one morning. I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.

Muhyiddin used to be known for his serious, even glum, looks. But he has learnt to smile more. His friends and family remind him that he should look “more friendly and smile, smile, smile” now that he is often in the news and on TV.

“I think it’s finally wired into my brain. My only fear is the ladies will fall for me,” he said, rolling his eyes ironically.

And that’s the other difference about him these days – he is learning to look at the lighter side of things and even to laugh at himself.

His account of how the beefed-up security had affected his life had everyone in the room bursting out in laughter.

He said that when he asked the security detail how close by they had to be, the guy just stretched out his arm – literally arms length.

He demonstrated how the bush-jacketed men stood around, arms folded across their chests when he took the family to a meal at the restaurant.

He is still getting used to the way they form a barricade around him wherever he has to go. But he had to insist that the outriders keep away when he went to Manek Urai.

“My concern was that the folk would say, ha, you come as the DPM, block our roads, make people give way. I could see my approval rating going down. I know they are thinking that if you want my vote, you have to be like us.

“So I made an urgent request to lessen the security detail. I said, please, no outriders for my car in Manek Urai, I don’t want to inconvenience the local people. When I landed in Kota Baru, I was happy to see that there were no outriders.

“Everything was fine till at night, as I was leaving for the airport, the outriders were back. But they told me, never mind, it’s already midnight, people are sleeping.”

Has he had a chance to unwind in the last three months?

He tried to have some down time with his family in Langkawi one weekend but it did not work out the way his family had expected.

The Umno crowd was waiting for him when he landed, they wanted to meet him, took him for breakfast and even asked him to officiate a ball game. And of course the security detail came along.

Life has changed significantly for him since becoming Deputy Prime Minister. It is a good thing that he is a known workaholic because the workload has grown heavier and as he joked, “before I can count the number of Cabinet committees I have to oversee, they add one more.”

“It’s been so hectic but there is so much more I need to do,” he said.

Both Najib and Muhyiddin are working out to be a compatible partnership. Both men are serious in temperament, they are intelligent and have come a long in their careers and are cool under pressure.

Najib has shown determination and focus in putting the country’s economy on track and Muhyiddin has shown that he is a good back-up man.

If the Prime Minister is seen as a man in a hurry to carry out his economic and political mission, then the Deputy Prime Minister is a man who wishes there were more hours in a day because he has so much to cramp into it.

Muhyiddin’s take on his boss

Working with Najib

“I am personally honoured to work with him as the deputy. He is fully aware of the people’s high expectations and the need to understand their thinking in the context of the changing social and political landscape. He is very hands-on in the way he go about things. It’s easy to work with him, he is a good listener, he wants to get to the core of issues or matters. I have not seen a Cabinet as active as now. He wants to get the ministers and heads of departments to move in tandem with what he wants to do. He is setting standards to achieve targets within a timeline with the KPI.”

The No 1’s No 1 priority

“The PM is trying to put the economy in a better state as soon as possible. He had introduced the stimulus package, he has stressed that deciding on where money should be spent is as important as monitoring and measuring its impact. He has taken big steps like an open tender system, throwing open the windows for investment and removing the measures from the NEP years. We know this may create some sense of insecurity and fear but we intend to explain it to the people. As the PM said, in terms of opening up our service sector, we are No 10 in these parts, we are even behind Myanmar. The country needs radical change, that’s what we have promised, transforming the country. The PM has a good grasp of the economy, he is really into it and I am learning from him.”

A long way in three months

“There is confidence in the leadership, I can feel that. The (Merdeka Centre) survey suggests we are moving in the right direction. As much as the PM is a man in a hurry, he has said it cannot be business as usual and that the days when the government knows all are over. We need to engage more with people and groups and this is what he has tried to do it, going down to ground, meeting people, walking about.

We hope that things move faster from now and we want to also manage the country and the politics.

People are expecting reform in politics and as the chairman of the management committee of Umno and Barisan Nasional, I hope to spend more time looking into the political side, putting the parties in a stronger position and improving public perception of us.”